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How to Think Like a Rocket Scientist

Think Like A Rocket Scientist

FORMER rocket scientist turned law professor, Ozan Varol, believes that while we can’t all be rocket scientists, we can all learn to think like one. Think Like a Rocket Scientist is about creativity and critical thinking—two skills in short supply today.

We all encounter complex and unfamiliar problems in our daily lives. Those who can tackle these problems—without clear guidelines and with the clock ticking—enjoy an extraordinary advantage.

Creativity comes naturally to us, but we are educated out of it in favor of certainty. Critical thinking, while valued theoretically, is not taught because we prefer the ease of conformity and the prepackaged answers we can accept from others.

Think Like a Rocket Scientist is a content-rich and very practical book. Varol offers nine principles in three stages to help us to reacquire and build our creativity and critical thinking muscles. In the first stage, we learn how to ignite our thinking. Stage two is focused on propelling the ideas we created in stage one. In the final stage, we learn why the final ingredient for unlocking our full potential includes both success and failure.

Rocket Scientist Launch

1. Flying in the Face of Uncertainty

Bertrand Russell wrote that “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” We crave certainty to the point of making sure and true what isn’t certain at all. We do so at our own peril. “Where certainty ends, progress begins.”

“The great obstacle to discovering,” historian Daniel J. Boorstin writes, “was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” The pretense of knowledge closes our ears and shuts off incoming educational signals from outside sources. Certainty blinds us to our own paralysis. The more we speak our version of the truth, preferable with passion and exaggerated hand gestures, the more our egos inflate to the size of skyscrapers, concealing what’s underneath.

Because of uncertainties, rocket scientists build in redundancies and margins of safety. “Think about it: Where are the redundancies in your own life?” To deal with uncertainties, we must begin walking before we see a clear path. “Start walking because it is the only way forward.”

2. Reasoning from First Principles

There are all kinds of narratives floating around based on assumptions, and when we pick one, they become who we are. First-Principles thinking takes us back to the beginning and questioning the assumptions. “The French philosopher and scientist René Descartes described it as systematically doubting everything you can possibly doubt, until you’re left with unquestionable truths. When you apply first-principles thinking, you go from what James Carse calls a finite player, someone playing within boundaries, to an infinite player, someone playing with boundaries.

Ask yourself, Why are they making that choice? It’s not because they’re stupid. It’s not because they’re wrong and you’re right. It’s because they see something that you’re missing. It’s because they believe something you don’t believe.

3. A Mind at Play

A mind at play is a curious mind. Thought experiments ask “what if” questions. “Thought experiments construct a parallel universe in which things work differently. Through thought experiments, we transcend everyday thinking and evolve from passive observers to active interveners in our reality.”

Varol says, compare apples and oranges. Get bored more often. Boredom allows our mind to tune out of the external and allows our mind to wander and daydream.

If we don’t take the time to think—if we don’t pause, understand, and deliberate—we can’t find wisdom or form new ideas. As author William Deresiewicz explains, “My first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.

Look at any monstrous company or bloated bureaucracy collapsing under its own weight, and you’ll find a historical lack of curiosity.

Moonshot Thinking

Moonshot thinking is taking a leap of faith. Incremental change modifies the status quo. Moonshot thinking allows for exponential change and upending the status quo.

The story we choose to tell ourselves about our capabilities is just that a choice. And like every other choice, we can change it. Until we push beyond our cognitive limits and stretch the boundaries of what we consider practical, we can’t discover the invisible rules that are holding us back.

If we restrict ourselves to what’s possible given what we have, we’ll never reach escape velocity and create a future worth getting excited about.

Rocket Scientist Accelerate

5. What If We Sent Two Rovers Instead of One?

Questions matter. Make sure you’re solving the right problem. Peter Attia, a physician and renowned expert on human longevity, said:

When people are looking for the “right answers,” they are almost always asking tactical questions. By focusing on the strategy, this allows you to be much more malleable with the tactics.

Varol adds:

Once you move from the what to the why—once you frame the problem broadly in terms of what you’re trying to do instead of your favored solution—you’ll discover other possibilities in the peripheries.

6. The Power of Flip-Flopping

Confirmation bias is alive and well primarily because it feels good, and it takes the work out of really thinking. While scientists are trained to be objective, even rocket scientists have a hard time thinking like rocket scientists. “No one comes equipped with a critical-thinking chip that diminishes the human tendency to let personal beliefs distort the facts.”

Opinions are hard to reassess. “When your beliefs and your identity are one and the same, changing your mind means changing your identity—which is why disagreements often turn into existential death matches.”

If the mind anticipates a single, that’s what the eye will see. Before announcing a working hypothesis, ask yourself, what are my preconceptions? What do I believe to be true? Also ask, do I really want this particular hypothesis to be true? If so, be very careful. Be very careful.

7. Test as You Fly, Fly as You Test

A test where the results are predetermined is not a test. “In a proper test, the goal isn’t to discover everything that can go right. Rather, the goal is to discover everything that can go wrong and to find the breaking point.”

Rocket scientists try to break the spacecraft on earth before it breaks in space. Find the breaking points. When astronaut Chris Hadfield returned from a successful mission, if everything had gone as planned, he responded, “The truth is that nothing went as we’d planned, but everything was within the scope of what we prepared for.”

Rocket Scientist Achieve

8. Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Rocket scientists don’t celebrate failure, nor do they demonize it. They take a more balanced approach. Nor do they fail-fast. The stakes are just too high. Their mantra is to learn fast.

We often assume failure has an endpoint. But failure isn’t a bug to get out of our system until success arrives. Failure is the feature. If we don’t develop a habit of failing regularly, we court catastrophe.

9. Nothing Fails Like Success

Success conceals failures. Sometimes success is pure luck. Without failures to learn from, we must learn from our successes.

Success is the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It drives a wedge between appearance and reality. When we succeed, we believe everything went according to plan. We ignore the warning signs and the necessity for change. With each success, we grow more confident and up the ante.

We pay a lot of lip service to critical thinking, yet it is a rare commodity. Think Like a Rocket Scientist is an essential read for anyone wanting to develop critical thinking skills or to mature their thinking.

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